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See Spot Run

Microsoft's launch of Spot is encouraging on several fronts, says Giga's Carl Zetie. The company's practical approach to smart objects sets it apart from earlier efforts and its commitment means Microsoft is still able -- and willing -- to innovate.

Microsoft recently announced the launch of Smart Personal Object Technology (Spot), the result of a research project to embed more intelligence in a variety of everyday devices such as clocks. Microsoft is by no means the first vendor, or even the first major IT vendor, to promote the vision of pervasive intelligent objects and sensors embedded in the world around us, but the specificity and practicality of Microsoft's approach sets it apart from many earlier efforts. The fact that Spot exists, however, is perhaps more significant than any particular Spot product that might emerge in the near future: Spot is proof that Microsoft is still willing and able to innovate.

A common principle of successful small devices, one that I've explored in this column before, is that they should be purposeful: designed to fulfill a specific role and presenting the user with controls and displays dedicated to that role. This principle is so ingrained in consumer appliances that we typically only notice it when it fails. For example, universal remote controls for TV, stereo receiver, DVD player, and cable box tend to be either overloaded with tiny, incomprehensible buttons or bafflingly modal, so that for all but the most basic tasks, separate dedicated remotes serve the job better. One of the most important elements of Spot is that it respects this principle of purposeful design: for example, one proposed device is an alarm clock that's smart enough not merely to know what time zone it's in (a feature readily available in clocks today), but also knows about an early meeting across town (from your diary, perhaps in a PDA sitting nearby) along with the fact that the weather and traffic are bad (via an Internet connection). The use of an Internet connection in this case is directly relevant to the function of the clock (i.e., purposeful), unlike, for instance, the generic Web-enabled domestic appliance that puts a Web browser on the front of a refrigerator. Furthermore, the Spot clock achieves this enhanced functionality without complicating the controls exposed to the user.

What makes Spot more remarkable is that the technology appears to be the result of a standalone research effort, not a spin-off of any existing Microsoft product. Spot also is risky: Microsoft is well aware of the track record of previous attempts at smart devices or appliances (many of which failed, incidentally, precisely because they were generic rather than purposeful), and it's quite probable that many early Spot devices also will fail to find a mass market. Such "misses" shouldn't be mistaken for a fundamental flaw in the basic idea.

The underlying philosophy of Spot is to take an existing object and to make it serve its function even better, not to try to graft an unrelated or unspecific function onto an existing object (although several press reports have already mistakenly reported it as if it were the "usual suspects" -- news, stocks, sports and weather -- on a wristwatch, thus completely missing the point of the initiative). Spot devices also are intended to be easy to use: the information they display should be "glanceable," in Microsoft's words, not requiring study and interpretation. The controls also should be direct and obvious, unlike, for example, some digital watches that are very smart but overload too few buttons with too many functions. In fact, the "S" in Spot could equally well stand for "simple" rather than "smart" --- and it takes a lot of smarts to make something simple.

Carl Zetie is VP of research of Giga Information Group.

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